See Us, Support Us Contribution: Author Pamela Brunskill17 October 2017
Throughout #SeeUsSupportUs month, we are highlighting the voices of people directly impacted by parental incarceration. Below is a piece by author Pamela Brunskill about how schools can be more understanding and supportive of children of incarcerated parents. Read more about Pam and her story at https://pamelabrunskill.com/
The Attendance Note by Pamela Brunskill
Crammed into the tiny attendance office at Williamsville South High School, I handed my note to the woman behind the desk. Mom had written that I would be picked up after second period again. It was day three of what would be Dad’s two-and-a-half week murder trial.
The chic blonde unfolded the note, read it, and raised her eyebrows. “Why will you be leaving?”
I tucked my head down. I remained silent, trying to figure out what to say.
The blonde sighed and tried again. “Is it for a doctor’s appointment? The dentist?”
It was just the two of us, so it shouldn’t have been hard for me to answer. Head still down, I mumbled, “No.” The hairs on the back of my neck prickled. I could have skipped school entirely, but I didn’t want my attendance record to show all those absences. Plus, second period was AP European History—I worried if I didn’t show up that I’d miss too much to pass the final exam for college credit. As it was, I’d have to catch up on all of my other classes, and I wasn’t sure how I would manage that. At the moment, I just needed permission to leave school at 9:20 to get to Dad’s trial on time.
“Well, you know this is an illegal absence.” She hadn’t questioned me the other days, but now that this was becoming a habit, she must have felt the need to address it, and her choice of words twisted into me.
I felt part of my future disappear. Since Dad had been arrested and the cost of his defense became plain, I worried about how I would save enough to go to college. I’d gotten a job and hoped to earn some scholarships. Now, my absences threatened even that possibility. I blinked back tears and quietly mumbled, “okay.”
Even if my reason for leaving was legal, I couldn’t tell this woman. The shame engulfed me, and I was fully aware of the stigma attached to having an incarcerated parent. I didn’t want anyone to know.
Though a Bill of Rights exists for children with incarcerated parents that includes the rights to be supported and not to be judged, blamed, or labeled; anyone in the situation knows that it can and does happen.
I didn’t want disdain, and I didn’t want pity. I wanted help navigating everything associated with my father’s incarceration. I wanted understanding and compassion.
I rarely confided in anyone, however. Not the attendance lady. Not my guidance counselor. Not the majority of my friends. My father’s incarceration was too raw and fraught with too many unpredictable factors to accurately gauge anyone’s reactions. So for the trial, as for most things related to Dad, I pretended to be the same high-achieving girl I always was, trying to cover any hint that things weren’t okay.
As the Osborne Association’s Stronger Together: Volume 1 points out, “children who seem to be coping quite well with a parent’s arrest or incarceration may be silently suffering intense emotions” (page 38). While I am only one example, my interaction with the attendance office illustrates the need to raise awareness of the issues children with incarcerated parents face: it’s difficult to receive support if others don’t know you need it.
I wish schools had a protocol for this type of thing. Schools are meant to be safe havens, and in some respects, Williamsville South was. Though the attendance office obviously hadn’t known about my situation, a couple of teachers and a psychologist did. They had reached out to me with kind words and an openness to talk about whatever I needed, and I appreciated the gestures.
Had my school circulated the news about my family situation, I want to believe that the lady in the attendance office would have handled my need to leave after second period differently.
If educators will join me in taking the See Us, Support Us pledge, then together we can lessen the stigma children face. The purpose is to gain insight and learn strategies for how to support children of incarcerated parents. Schools should provide training to staff to increase their understanding of and sensitivity to the experience of children with incarcerated parents, and address biases. Of course, when information about a family is shared among school staff, it should be done with the family’s permission.
If schools can do this, then someday a future child with an incarcerated parent can explain that she has to miss school to go to her father’s trial without fear of the repercussions. Instead, the attendance lady will make a note on her pad, and let the child go.